On the need for action (and surprising ostriches)

My Writing Advice to Self of the week is this: whatever the genre, pack the action in!

Bedtime reading at the moment is High Rollers by Jack Bowman. Jack Bowman is the pen name of Belinda Bauer and I bought her book at the Killer Women conference in London a few weeks ago. Belinda was a great speaker. She wrote High Rollers (‘Brace yourself for IMPACT’, it says on the cover) after being marooned in a holiday home with only one book in English. It was a thriller and she found it so predictable and the male lead character such a stereotyped action man with a horrible attitude to women, that she decided she could write one a lot better – and (unlike most of us who have had similar thoughts) she did!
In the chapters I read the other night, the hero and his potential love interest/sidekick makes a vital breakthrough in the investigation, is driven off the road at night, misses an opportunity to make love to his lady friend, goes back to check the evidence and finds it gone, returns and finds their hostel has been torched, is hurt in the fire and in rescuing a dangerous dog, is hospitalised, is wooed in return by the lady friend, is questioned by the police and fined, finds an escaped animal (an ostrich, as it happens) and helps to capture it only to find the bird itself holds another vital clue.
All this is in the middle of the book – the flat bit in many plots.
Now, we don’t all write fast action thrillers. I don’t, for one, but I know from reading manuscripts that one of the weaknesses that can occur in any novel is the sitting about talking (SAT) problem. It can be caused by a flabby plot moment – you know where you’re going, but not quite sure how you’re going to get there. Sometimes it is also a signal of authorial self-doubt (just tread water for a while, characters, while I figure out whether this novel is going to be worth the effort). Whatever causes it, dull passages of SAT have got to go.
Action is what we want as readers.
I don’t mean car chases or burning buildings, necessarily. In different genres the action might be far more cerebral, but it would still be action, in other words there would be change. Change of scene, of tone, of point of view, of shot distance or frame, of tempo, of colour or accent or rhythm. Change; movement; surprise!
The best of all books are a huge sequence of surprises. You never know how any single sentence will end, let alone a chapter or the whole story.
That’s my ambition.
And hats off to Belinda. The ostrich! Brilliant!
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Stay away from that café!

I’ve been giggling this week about a tick I noticed in my own writing and other people’s – the tendency to sit down too much!

I don’t mean the authors; I mean their characters. In the half dozen books and manuscripts I’ve read in the past three days the characters spend an awful lot of time sitting about.

It’s not that the books are without action, there is plenty elsewhere, it’s just that between vivid scenes they all tend to sit down and (this being England, my dears) they often have a nice cup of tea!

As soon as you spot something like this, of course, it jumps out at you whichever book you pick up. Plots need pauses and a cafe or pub is a handy place for characters to meet and share vital information. People do chat over coffee and meet in tea shops – it’s perfectly realistic – but my resolution for Nanowrimo and beyond  is to put a stop to all this comfort and get my characters moving.

They can talk plot lines and establish character out in the fresh air. They can reinforce their conflicts or mention that crucial detail  whilst driving, walking, riding, break dancing, roasting an ox, drying their hair, shark wrestling or getting a tattoo, but they will definitely not be doing it sitting in a café.

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The thrill of readers & handwritten reviews

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One of the pleasures of this odd book-writing habit is being contacted by readers who go to the trouble of seeking you out and telling you what they thought. They send comments and reviews, they share news, they ask how the sequel is coming on. It is really a delight to have a sense of real, live readers out there, going about their lives and genuinely enjoying what you have written. I write comedy, so I have the lovely thought that I might cheer them up and give them a little laugh here and there as well.

It’s a strange transition when your characters move from your imagination to someone else’s. People you haven’t met before can talk about one of your characters as if they knew them. The first few times it happens you think – how do you know? – and have to remind yourself, oh yes, I wrote it down, other people know about Sister B, or Alphonsus Dunn, or whoever it happened to be. It’s like someone else talking about your secret invisible friend.

Then there are the special category readers. I was ridiculously pleased when someone who had been a nun wrote to say that she had loved the book (it’s about a little convent trying to survive against the odds) and was going to send it to her friends the Carmelites, who would identify with the characters’ struggles. And there is another lovely reader who knows Peru and another who buys ten copies at a time and sends them all over the world.

Writers complain sometimes about how isolating writing can be. I have a sociable day job and solitude for writing is a luxury, so that doesn’t worry me, but it’s a tremendous bonus to have the sense of a patient and receptive audience gently waiting.

…………….

I’m including below a couple of hand-written reviews that were sent by readers who don’t usually write them, and aren’t users of Amazon or Goodreads, but who wanted me to know what they thought. I’m very grateful to them for taking the trouble. (I edited a bit. They’re long and thoughtful, but I didn’t change the gist.)

…To me, yes, unputdownable. The epistolary form, reminiscent of Jean Webster’s ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ of my schooldays, led me on, and temptingly on, to read one more letter, or chapter, and one more…
I congratulate Fran Smith on this, on its originality and delightfulness as we meet Sister Boniface and touch finger-tips with the much-travelled and adventurous Emelda. When I came, speedily but reluctantly, to the last page, I felt that the tale couldn’t end there. Hurry up, Fran, with Volume Two. Don’t disappoint the millions* of us out here.
And Jennie Rawlings – I just loved the cover.

I loved it – delightfully light touch. Elegant prose. Brought a smile. Beautifully wrought characters.

…liked how it was written – quaint, naive, commonsense; dealt with realistic current situations; well put together. Congratulations on the cover, it just catches the spirit.

* (I love the dear reader’s optimism here!)

Granny writes WHOPPING plots

Greetings from the Shed, Grannies*. I recommend a shed, especially one that is newly wind- and water-proofed. No gaping holes! The luxury!

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, you can find all about it here. It’s a challenge to sign up and try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There’s lots of cheery support on the website and ways to contact other people doing the same thing. Some will be near, others will be on the other side of the world. It’s free – donations aside – and it’s a great way to take the bridle off your muse and get her galloping. The idea is that you don’t edit your writing at all, you just write and keep writing. Some people make meticulous and detailed plans, some have a rough outline to work to, others do no preparation at all. Your genre, approach and style is up to you; the results of your efforts are your own – you don’t need to share anything except the title and your daily growing wordcount, and even then only if you feel like it. I’ve done it several times now and have never come even close to completing the 50,000 challenge, even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first novel went from a vague beginning to a proper manuscript through NaNoWriMo. I’m using it this year to top up the sequel. We start tomorrow. Give it a go! Let me know how you get on.

I was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl this week. Why not? I’m an English teacher; the pay may be shirt buttons, but I have the perfect excuse to read anything at all. Dahl’s Granny is a wonderfully transgressive character. She’s mean and ugly, she’s rude to her grandson, she’s horrid about his parents and she has brown teeth and a mouth like a dog’s bum – a simile that electrifies every child I’ve read it with.

George’s granny made me think about plotting. Not plotting how to to do away with your granny – plotting as in making your story grab the reader and sweep them along. Dahl is terrific at action. The next step is never predictable. Mild little George is oppressed by awful granny, he feels “a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping.” And of course, he does. What keeps his young readers on the edge of their chairs is that every scene is a huge surprise.

My resolution for NaNoWriMo this year is, like George, to do something whopping with my plot. Nothing mild, absolutely nothing predictable, just one irresistible surprise after another.

Wish me luck!

PS this is one of the best blogs posts I’ve read lately. It’s from the Writer’s Workshop and includes a couple of really useful points about plots, as well as lots of other cringe-making mistakes most of us will recognize.

*NB For the purposes of this blog you are a Granny. Everyone is. We practice extreme inclusivity. If you don’t like the title, you can be a Refusenik (RK for short), and you are welcome too.IMG_0949.JPG

It should say ‘apologies to Quentin Blake’…

Content marketing for Grannies (don’t worry this won’t hurt a bit).

Good morning from the shed. I recommend a shed.

Dear GWB-ers,
Many writers of all ages are aghast at the idea that not only do we have write a book, we also have to use social media to promote and sell it. Just when we thought we could sit down with a nice cup of tea, a biscuit, and possibly even the tiniest bit of self-congratulation, there turns out to be a whole new world to be conquered. And it’s a new world full of jargon, conventions and more tricky etiquette than the court of Louis XIV.

But I bring comfort. I have looked into this a little, and although you won’t hear many people say this, content marketing – it seems this is the term for using social media to promote your book/play/range of fetching teatowels – is a doddle, once you get the hang of it. (I’m not saying I have got the hang of it yet, but I’m doing what I recommend to all, I’m having a go.)

There is a natural progress that anyone born around the middle of the last century has to go through in order to see what I mean. It goes:
1 Ridicule and wry scepticism: What on earth do people want to do a thing like that for? Who cares what sort of coffee you like, or whether you are visiting an Inca monument or stuck on the 7.12 between Holburn and King’s Cross?
2 Grudging curiosity: You get a following of 50,000 people when all you seem to do is tweet pictures of your kittens, or your legs looking a bit like hot dogs? Why?
3 Outright cynicism: there will always be idiots in this world with nothing better to do than re-tweet pictures of people whose underwear misbehaves at a crucial moment; I am not one of them!
5 Defeatism: even if I fancied having a go, it’s all too techie and I could never get the hang of it.
6 Blundering into the deep end of technology: I have just spend three hours reading about search engine optimisation; I still don’t know what any of it means, but I’m pretty sure it means I’m not up to any of this.
7 Secretive experimentation: actually, I did tweet a picture of my newly-invented marrow and salmon lasagne last night, but my followers are mostly in Richmond, Ohio or New Delhi, so if I did it wrong, they’re not very likely to accost me in the queue in the Post Office.
8 Overt adoption blending into bossy evangelism: Oh come on, Celia, anyone can tweet their blog posts!

I’m closer to 8 now, thanks to a real, live, Californian e-marketing expert called Michael Newman. His blog is here, if you want a look. What Michael explained, in the consultation I shared with other authors, was this: if you can write, you are head and shoulders above the other poor saps who are trying to market their stuff on the internet. If you can write, you can put together a blog post, a tweet or a Facebook post, whichever you fancy, and it will have a decent chance of sounding right and attracting the right readers. If you can’t write for toffee, you’re going to find this lots harder.

His other tip was this: do what you feel like doing on the social media scene. Maybe you like Facebook, or hate Instagram or fancy a go at blogging. Try them all, but stick to what feels best for you and set to work properly on that. Experiment; take your time. You should aim to create an online presence (a platform, in the jargon) which truly represents you, your book and your take on things. It should do this so well that you like it, you are at home with it, it’s fun to add to it and you like the views of the people who share it. The best social media posts reflect one person’s view. They may be aiming to sell you something, but they’re entertaining or informing you at the same time, which feels like a fair deal.

“If it feels like selling, you’re not doing it right!” (Nick Cook, author of Cloud Riders, who has a big Twitter following)

Social media, I think, is difficult for generations who were brought up on the “Sunday best” philosophy. You had china and clothes and shoes that were only for best and when company was coming round, you were on your best behaviour. Quirkiness was not really encouraged. In social media it is. Forget your best behaviour; keep up your standards (check your spelling, keep an eye on that grammar, choose photos that look good), but it doesn’t have to be slick or over-professional, it just has to be interesting and in some way genuine. It shouldn’t feel like being inspected in your Sunday best; it should feel like playing with your friends.

Keep on writing!

Fran

Next time: How to get help (free help, obviously).